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Washington Ballet Artistic Director Septim Webre is stepping down after teaching more that 75,000 youth in the DC area about the classical arts. (Courtesy Photo)

In 1999, as Septim Webre took over as artistic director of the Washington Ballet, the first thing he created, even before assembling his first set of dance rehearsals, was DanceDC, an education and outreach program geared specifically towards underserved Black youth.

17 years later, Weiber’s tenure has enabled more than 75,000 public school students to learn about and experience classical dance at no cost.  Webre announced in early February that he is stepping down, so DanceDC will pay homage to the Cuban innovator through dance, at this year’s annual Washington Ballet Gala on April 29 at Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Northwest D.C.

“I have accomplished so much with the Washington Ballet and as an artist, but I had to look at the big picture and place focus on what I love the most, which is choreographing and mentoring young dancers, especially while I still have the energy,” Webre told the AFRO.

In 2000 he was also responsible for taking The Washington Ballet to perform in Cuba, with an entourage of more than 100 people, becoming the first U.S. ballet troupe to perform since 1960, despite the U.S. embargo in place against Fidel Castro at the time.

“My family left right after the 1959 revolution in Cuba, so I never lived there,” he said. “However, I still felt strong ties to the Island. It wasn’t a political stance going to Cuba, but I did wish to create a greater understanding between American and Cuban culture, with hope that national leaders might follow suit.”

During Webre’s reign at the dance school, he also accomplished many other successes including increasing enrollment from 325 students to the present 1,400, quadrupling the budget from $2.8 million to its current $12 million a year and the creation of “THEARC” in 2005, a community center for students to practice dance and experience community programs.

DanceDC targets students East of the Anacostia River and selects on average, 9 different schools a year to partake in programming, with more than 700 student participants including Beers Elementary.

“Whenever we attend the “Nutcracker,” students are amazed to be able to touch the stage and see these performances. A lot of our parents can’t afford extra activities, so it is so comforting to be able to expose our children to something new,” Theresa Everette, manager and strategy logistics at Beers Elementary School said. “The children perform better in school and are excited to be at school.”

The dance program is geared towards 2nd and 3rd grade students and takes place in the Spring and in the Fall with a seven week in-school ballet course, that complies with the city’s public schools and National Dance Education Standards, at no cost to students and includes front row entries to professional performances.

“For most students, they have never been exposed to ballet, maybe some dance classes, but being exposed to pre-professional training at professional company is what makes this program unique, with tremendous opportunities,” Katrina Toews, director at THEARC said.

During the school year, 50 students with high grades are also awarded a scholarship called EXCEL! That allows selected students an opportunity to receive on-site professional ballet technique training at no cost for an hour once a week at The Washington School of Ballet post DanceDC.

“Dance teaches life skills. From the program we have, I think a small handful of these children are going to go off and become professional dancers, but for the rest of them, when you think about what you do in school, standing up, presenting yourself to the public, reading or even running for school office, you learn all of those skills through dance. Dance teaches you poise and self-confidence for men and women in the best light,” Anthony Sala, Washington Ballet THEARC Program Director said.

This year, the Washington Ballet will welcome Julie Kent, an American ballet dancer, as Webre’s successor and pay tribute to the forerunner at this year’s annual fundraiser, where a large portion of the Gala’s proceeds go towards DanceDC and EXCEL!